Take a cursory look at the news, and chances are you'll see a fairly optimistic take on the job market: Roughly a decade after the Great Recession plunged many graduates into years of professional uncertainty, the Department of Labor is reporting that the U.S. unemployment rate is under 4%, the lowest since 2000. In some industries, there are even more jobs than workers.
Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes clear that jobs aren't growing on trees for some workers. Job seekers with disabilities are still having a tough time: the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was at 7% in May 2018.
Last year, the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) published a global study of this "talent pool that many companies neglect." Their research focused on white-collar workers but analyzed people with visible and "invisible" disabilities. More than a third of survey respondents said they have experienced discrimination or bias on the job, so getting a foot in the door can be even more discouraging. Here are some of the hurdles, and advice from experts on how to navigate them.
Here are the top ones: the ability to apply for jobs, mobility issues when interviewing, and the potential for prejudice, says Paula Harvey, a talent acquisition special expertise panelist at The Society for Human Resource Management. Some jobs require driver's licenses, but many job seekers with disabilities rely on public transportation or paratransit services — which, "especially in rural areas, can be very limiting," adds Anne E. Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network (JAN).
Remote access isn't always a solution, either. Technology takes up too much space in some people's lives, but access to digital resources is still limited for many people with disabilities. Research from Pew found that regardless of age, disabled Americans adopt tech at lower rates, and are less likely to use the internet on a daily basis. Those who do have reliable internet often find that some websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities.
"If an employer's application process is online and the process is not accessible for some people with disabilities, it can be difficult if not impossible to apply," says Hirsh.
The organization, which is funded by a contract with the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor, cites examples of how employers can "ensure equal access" to recruitment and application information, including providing non-digital forms, designing large graphics so that people with tremors have more room to click on links, providing brief descriptions of sounds for those with hearing impairments, simplifying web pages for those who are easily distracted, and removing auto-refresh options so that pages don't repeatedly restart.
Ensuring that materials are accessible is the responsibility of the company or organization, but some make it possible for job seekers to root out those tools. For example, the American Express career opportunities page has an email address and toll-free number that U.S. job seekers with disabilities can contact if they "would like to request an accommodation in order to apply for a position." It may be worth it to seek those out, or contact companies to see if they will do the same.
Resources for the Job Hunt and Where to Start Looking
Harvey says that like anyone else, job seekers with disabilities should start with their strengths and "research what types of jobs would be the best fit for their abilities."
Resources can vary hugely by region — even by neighborhood — so look locally. Harvey name-checks abilityJobs, which dubs itself the largest job site for people with disabilities, as being a good place to start. The website can be used by employers to find candidates, and by job seekers to post their résumés and search for work. Hirsh adds that the job-seeker resources on the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) can also be a starting point.
Vilissa Thompson, a social worker and the founder of Ramp Your Voice, says going offline to network is key. "Social workers in my area share a lot of job opportunities, and people in disability advocacy spaces that I'm friends with have let me know about opportunities. Those personal networks and semi-personal, professional relationships have been the most influential," she says. "Sometimes word-of-mouth can be a very powerful tool, with somebody letting you know of opportunities at their place of employment or if they know of your particular interest."
Remote jobs are becoming more common, which affords workers with disabilities a greater degree of stability, but Thompson says it's crucial to make sure those jobs work well with individual healthcare needs.
"I know it was a barrier for me to try to find a job that was decent pay and had benefits, so if I had to get off of Medicaid, I would have healthcare," she explains. "Some remote jobs may want you to work as a consultant, so they may not offer healthcare benefits and other incentives like a 401(k) and things of that nature."
The job searching process does not define who you are as a person and that's very important to remember.
Asking for Accommodations
Disclosing a disability is largely a personal choice. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects job seekers with disabilities from a certain degree of discrimination, but like any law, its real-life efficacy can vary. As Harvey puts it, accommodations are "things employers should have, but some may be put off by being asked or they may be nervous about not having implemented certain things."
"Unless you need an accommodation for the interview it may not be wise to start the interview with your accommodation request," Hirsh advises. "Focus on the skill and talent you would bring to the position and the company."
You are not required to disclose a disability to a prospective employer "unless [you] have an immediate need for a 'reasonable accommodation' under the ADA during the interview, application process, or while on the job." Employers cannot require applicants to take medical examinations before they are offered a job. Still, tabling the issue isn't something everyone can do.
"Being a wheelchair user is something I can't hide. When somebody sees me, they see my situation," says Thompson. "It's the employer's responsibility to ensure they have an inclusive work environment that is truly welcoming to disabled applicants and are prepared to handle any applicant, regardless of if they have a disability or not. But at the end of the day, it is the applicants who bear the burden of worrying about what opportunities that they can acquire and if their employer is going to be ableist or dismissive."
She says that if you do decide to disclose and you know what your accommodations are, being able to articulate them clearly can be a "powerful tool." Explain what assistance you may need that aligns with the job requirements so you can do the best job possible without burning yourself out or putting yourself at risk. Many employers assume providing accommodation will be prohibitively expensive, she notes, so breaking down what it would take to do your job may help clarify the issue. If you sense that you've been discriminated against during the process despite being able to meet the requirements of the job, document your experience so you have something on paper and consider contacting the EEOC.
"We have to be comfortable with challenging systems that are determined to hold us behind, and really [considering] if that's something you want to fight because it is a recurring thing," Thompson says. "Know that you have value as a worker. The job searching process does not define who you are as a person and that's very important to remember."